People’s Grocery Lynching of 1892 in Memphis, Tennessee

The story of the People’s Grocery lynching begins with increasing racial tensions in the Tennessee area in 1892 around the same time that Mark Twain was finishing his “Tom Sawyer Abroad.” The lynching was connected to the People’s Grocery, a grocery store that first opened in 1889 as a cooperative venture formed by 11 prominent Blacks. According to whites, the store quickly became the “chief rendezvous of the blacks”[1] and the St. Louis Post Dispatch claimed that it was ruled by “crap-playing, drinking, and disorderly conduct.”[2] It was located just outside Memphis in a neighborhood called “The Curve,” which was described by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in the following manner:

“The place called ‘The Curve’ is a settlement of [Blacks] and is just over the line of the city limits. The city powers have no authority there … It has been called ‘The Curve’ for years. A long time ago, the Citizens’ railway extended its line to the cemeteries and made a turn on Mississippi and Walker streets. That was long before [Blacks] settled there and … anything in the vicinity was east, west, north, or south of “The Curve.’ … The place had so long been known as ‘The Curve’ that the stores was oftener called by that name than its given name. After the [Blacks] began settling the quarter ‘The Curve’ became prominent through the fights, cutting, and shooting scrapes which occurred there. Bad liquor, bad characters and crap games did not have a tendency to elevate the character of the place and beside this the [Blacks] knew they were out of reach of the police and did pretty nearly as the pleased.”[3]  

By March of 1892, the People’s Grocery was doing well. It was being run by Thomas Moss, a quiet well behaved man and a friend of Ida B. Wells, an American investigative journalist, educator, and an early leader in the civil rights movement. Moss had two men working there, Will Stewart and Calvin McDowell. In addition, Moss had a white competitor, a grocer named William Barrett. His “low-dive gambling den” and liquor selling store originally held a monopoly in the area until the People’s Grocery moved in and that caused him to be unhappy because he lost his advantage.

 
People's Grocery lynchings

Thomas Moss. Author’s collection.

On Wednesday, 2 March 1892, two boys, a young Black named Armour Harris and a young white named Cornelius Hurst, who was the son of an Express messenger, got into a fight while playing marbles outside the People’s Grocery. Hurst’s father got involved and whipped the young Harris boy. However, while doing so Stewart and McDowell came to Harris’ defense.

When Harris’ father heard what Hurst had done, he was mad. He then gathered a group of Blacks who reputedly “went to Hurst’s house and was abusing him in vile terms when Hurst ran out with a club and struck [the elder] Harris.”[4] Police were called, and the crowd was dispersed but tensions remained high.

Barrett, who supported Hurst’s actions, then went to the People’s Grocery accompanied by a police officer. They were looking for Stewart and found McDowell, who they alleged was harboring thieves. McDowell claimed that there was no in the store that met Stewart’s description. A frustrated Barret then allegedly hit McDowell with his revolver and knocked him down. In doing so the gun fell out of his hand, which McDowell then grabbed and shot at Barrett as he ran from the store. McDowell was then arrested.

People's Grocery lynching - Calvin McDowell

Calvin McDowell. Author’s collection.

The arrest of McDowell supposedly increased the anger among Blacks, and they began to congregate. They felt that they were being treated unfairly. Whites then claimed that Blacks were holding mass meetings and making threats to “clean out the ― white trash … and the use of dynamite [was] advocated [to accomplish it].”[5] Barrett heard about the supposed threats and brought them to the attention of white authorities saying that there was a conspiracy afoot by Blacks to hurt whites.

Fearful of what Blacks might do, whites then appealed to Judge Julius J. DuBose of the Criminal Court for protection. He was a former Confederate soldier and vowed to form a posse to get rid of the Black troublemakers, or as he called them the “high-handed rowdies.” He then issued a bench warrant for the arrest of Armour Harris and Stewart.

On the evening 5 March a group of white men, that included a county sheriff and plainclothes civilians went to serve the warrants and arrest Stewart at the People’s Grocery. Blacks claimed the officers had nefarious purposes. They maintained that the officer came to commit a rout because they surrounded the People’s Grocery and entered at both the front and the rear of the store.

People's Grocery lynchings - Floor of People's Grocery

Floor Plan of the People’s Grocery. (A) front door; (C) back room; (E) small room which some Blacks retreated; (F) barricaded space; (G) where Moss stood; (I) door leading from bar to room where Harrold was shot; (L) back door through which certain deputies entered. Author’s collection.

According to some reports, there were about a dozen Blacks inside who were at the back of the store. Moss was among them and was reading the paper when the officers entered. Not realizing what was happening, Blacks claimed to have mistaken the officers for a white mob and so they fired upon them, which caused the officers to suffer the following injuries:

“Deputy Bob Harrold was dangerously wounded in the face and shoulders, and fell to the ground first. Deputy Charles Cole was shot through the shoulder and in the face. Deputy E.A. Yerger was shot in the scalp. The deputies promptly returned the fire.”[6]

The injured whites retreated to Barrett’s store and called for reinforcements. Other deputized whites then went to the grocery, where, in the meantime, some of the Blacks escaped in the melee. Eventually however, police arrested thirteen Blacks, seized a cache of weapons and ammunition, and took those they arrested to jail. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported:

“Moss … was very defiant and cried out when arrested that he ‘wished he could kill all the white people in the world.’ The officers had considerable difficulty getting their prisoners to the jail, a crowd of whites having gathered and lynching being attempted.”[7]

White newspapers gave different reports about what happened when compared to what five Black ministers reported to the St. Paul Appeal. White papers described the shooting by Blacks as an ambush that was calculated and cold-blooded whereas the five Black ministers maintained that as soon as the men inside the store realized the intruders were officers, they dropped their weapons and submitted themselves to arrest because they were confident that they would be able to explain their case in court.

People's Grocery lynching - The Graphic

Cover of The Graphic in 1892 showing the melee. Author’s collection.

The following Sunday morning, 6 March, hundreds of whites were deputized and spread out to conduct a house-to-house search for any Black person involved in the People’s Grocery melee. About forty Blacks were arrested with most taken from their homes in the early morning hours. Arrests included Armour Harris, his mother, and Nat Trigg, who had allegedly shot Cole in the face and then escaped.

With the imprisonment of the Blacks at the Shelby County Jail, a large crowd of armed white men and boys began to form on the streets. They behaved intimidatingly. They fired off their guns and began to scour the area hoping to arrest any other Blacks suspected of having been involved in the melee and those who might have escaped from the People’s Grocery.

“There were serious apprehensions of further violence, especially of lynching but as Sunday and Monday nights passed the danger seemed to be abating. The authorities, however, deemed it necessary to use all precautions against a possible resort to violence by the [Blacks] in general.”[8]

In the early hours of Wednesday morning a group of about 75 white men wearing masks surrounded the Shelby County Jail. Nine went to the gate and rang for the watchman. They told him that they had found another Black who should be incarcerated, and he therefore went to open the gate and accept the prisoner. However, when he opened the gate, the masked men pushed their way in, and he realized that he had been duped.

Once inside the jail, the masked men grabbed the cell keys and began conducting a search. At the time, the jailer was sound asleep upstairs and had no idea what was happening downstairs. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

“Suddenly the click of a key going into a lock was heard. The men stopped for an instant. There was a little scuffle, a hand was clapped over a [black man’s mouth] until he was bound, and Moss, the mail carrier, was in the possession of the mob. … Soon McDowell was found and then Stewart and the party was ready to start.”[9]

Of course, the white men were up to no good. It seems that the white mob was well organized and later there were reports that the People Grocery lynching had been well planned. No resident in the vicinity of the jail heard any shouts, whoops, cursing, loud talking, or gun fire and Memphis residents were surprised later to learn what happened.

The three Black captives were “pushed and hustled” into the street. They found themselves helpless and could not fight back. Moreover, they likely knew what was coming. The St. Paul Appeal gave a one line to describe what happened next:

“The three men were pushed out and taken in their undressed or half-dressed condition to an old brick yard near the Chesapeake & Ohio railroad, north of the city, and there shot to death ― it said ― about 3 or 3:30am.”[10]

Other descriptions of what happened that led to the People’s Grocery lynching provided greater detail. It also became clear because of some newspaper reports that some white reporters had been notified in advance that a lynching of Blacks was going to happen. These reporters then gave detailed specifics related to the horrifying event. For instance, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

“No halt was made [by the white mob] and quickly they reached the corner. Turning into Auction street they started toward the Mississippi River, stopping, however, as they reached the tracks of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad. A few words in an undertone and the men started north along the tracks. The night was pitchy dark, but no lagging was allowed. The prisoners, securely bound, were kept moving at a hot pace.

In a few minutes the suburbs of the city were reached, and in an open field near Wolf River the [three men] met their doom. For the first time they were allowed to speak. As the gags were removed Moss said:

[‘Tell my people to go West, there is no justice for them here.’]* … Scarcely had he uttered the words when the crack of a revolver was heard and ball crashed through his cheek. This was the signal for the work. A terrible volley was poured in upon the shivering [men], who instantly fell dead in their tracks.

McDowell fell face downward, by himself, but Moss and Stewart fell over each other, and when the bodies were found this morning they lay close together.

The bodies presented a horrible sight. McDowell’s jaw was entirely shot away and the back of his right ear … [had] a hole large enough to admit a man’s fist. His right hand, too, had been half blown away, as if in defense he had grabbed the muzzle of a shotgun.

Stuart was shot in the mouth and twice in the back of the head. His body was riddled with buckshot. His ear was shot off and several bullets entered his forehead.”[11]

As quickly as the white mob formed, those involved scattered after the People’s Grocery lynching. Reports were that not anyone involved could be found and no one seemed able to identify any of the culprits. Therefore no one was arrested, and no one was ever punished for the People’s Grocery lynching. As to the bodies of Moss, Stewart, and McDowell, they were taken to Walsh’s establishment around 7am.

Supposedly within 15 minutes of their arrival, the place was surrounded by concerned Black citizens fearful that more trouble was coming. Because of their fear they supposedly dared not say too much, although reputedly there were some cursing and muttering among them. Around 10am an inquest was held and then the three bodies of the dead men were sent to their respective homes.

In the meantime, as word of the People’s Grocery lynching spread through the Black community Blacks began to assemble in large numbers at The Curve. They were understandably upset and grieving but they remained peaceful. Unfortunately, the gatherings started new rumors that Blacks were organizing and that they wanted to get even with whites for the People’s Grocery lynching. Moreover, allegations were made that they were planning to seek revenge against whites.

Headline from St. Louis Globe-Democrat related to the People’s Grocery lynching. Author’s collection.

When Judge DuBose heard these rumors, he ordered the sheriff to take possession of the swords and guns belonging to the Tennessee Rifles, a Colored military company. The Judge also ordered a gun store closed because it had supposedly sold arms to some Black men. In addition, DuBose dispatched a hundred men to the People’s Grocery with orders that they should “shoot down on sight any Negro who appears to be making trouble.”[12]

Gangs of armed and angry white men then rushed to The Curve. There they shot wildly into the Black crowds. Whites then looted the People’s Grocery, so that ultimately, the grocery store that had served Blacks and was making a handsome profit was sold for one-eighth of its cost to Barrett.

Although white men seemed to have the advantage, the People’s Grocery lynching became front page news. Stories about what happened sparked national outrage. In addition, the St. Paul Appeal wrote:

“So far as we can learn now, the Colored people are terrorized, and have but little hopes of justice or the considerate treatment which we have a right to expect at the hands of the law. The faults or mistakes of a few among us are used to the deep injury and distress of all.”[13]

When Ida B. Wells learned of the People’s Grocery lynching and that her friend Moss had been a victim, she was outraged. She believed that the killings were an excuse to stop Blacks from acquiring wealth and property and noted that whites just wanted to keep Blacks down. She then embraced Moss’ dying words of striking out for the west. She encouraged Blacks to leave Memphis, thereby starting a huge westward movement by them with the following words:

“There is therefore only one thing left that we can do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons.”[14]

People's Grocery lynchings - Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells. Courtesy of Wikipedia.


*The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Moss actually said, “If you are going to kill us, turn our faces to the West” but supposedly other claims stated that he said, “Tell my people to go West, there is no justice for them here.”

References:

  • [1] St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Sunday’s Riot,” March 9, 1892, p. 1.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Shot by a Mob,” March 9, 1892, p. 1.
  • [4] St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sunday’s Riot,” p. 1.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] The Appeal, “Memphis Mob,” March 26, 1892, p. 1.
  • [9] St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Shot by a Mob,” p. 1.
  • [10] The Appeal, p. 1.
  • [11] St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Shot by a Mob,” p. 1.
  • [12] C. G. Hoople, As I Saw It: Women who Lived the American Adventure (Indiana: Dial Press, 1978), p. 180.
  • [13] The Appeal, 4
  • [14] C. E. Kelley and A. L. Eblen, eds., Women who Speak for Peace (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), p. 18.

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